This past weekend a group of 12 executives met with me to learn how to coach. This was a seasoned group from around the world: CEOs from some major companies and industry groups, entrepreneurs who have built companies up to the $165 million mark, and leaders of Human Resources at prominent companies. (One participant wrote to me soon after, "I have just come off one of the most insightful events of my career thanks to your Center for Executive Coaching training event.")
As they practiced coaching, the following six fundamentals of coaching needed to be reinforced more than once:
1. Start every session by confirming intent and outcomes. Don't start asking general open-ended questions at the beginning of a coaching session, the way that a therapist might start a meeting with a patient. Instead, get clear up front about what the client wants to achieve. For instance, one group of participants was coaching (as a group) a colleague about how to better engage her team. Instead of asking about where the client wanted to focus her time, they asked a series of seemingly random questions about the company size, industry, and number of direct reports. Then they asked some questions to fish around for a problem, instead of simply asking, "What is a key issue that you would like to resolve by then end of our coaching session?" Once they finally asked this question, the coaching flowed more smoothly and effectively. Start with a purpose, intent, and goals.
2. Let the client do most of the work. For instance, if you hit a fork in the road with a client, and might be able to discuss one of two or more issues, don't tell the client where to go next. Ask where the client would like to go instead. That way, you learn more about how the client is thinking about the issue, and go where it is most valuable for him or her.
3. Don't be directive until the client has exhausted their own ideas, and even then, be wary. Executive coaching clients are busy, smart, often arrogant people (like all of us!). They don't need the coach to tell them the answer. Even if they say they do, they don't. If you don't believe me, try it — and listen as the client disagrees with your ideas. A better approach is to use powerful, open-ended questions that drive the client have their own insights and ideas. That way, you learn about the client's world view and can help tease out new ways of looking at the challenge. This is a big challenge for many coaches, especially those from leadership backgrounds, because they are used to being directive. Effective executive coaches resist this temptation — and it is a strong temptation! — and start by asking powerful questions. Of course, after this inquiry process runs out of steam, the coach can and should share his or her own insights. Note: using the Socratic method to get the client to come to your conclusion, and burying your ideas in a faux open-ended question (e.g., "What about trying….?") are not substitutes for powerful questions; they are manipulative tactics that will frustrate clients.
4. Bake value into the process. People hire professionals to have impact, get results, and bring value worth more than the time and investment required to engage them. A simple way to bake value into the process is to ask at the start of each engagement, "What would make this engagement the most valuable of your career?" and start each session with, "What would make today's session the most valuable hour of your week?" Similarly, end each session with, "What did you find most valuable from today's session?" Finally, be sure that you and the client have put in place clear ways to measure progress and results, whether it is through tracking a change in a behavior or specific team or organizational results.
5. Let the client be the smartest person in the room, or, put in coach-centric terms: Don't try to be the smartest person in the room. Many coaches come from backgrounds in which they were expected to be the smartest person in the room (e.g., consulting, leadership roles). If you want to keep clients longer, put away the need to be smarter than your client. Instead, patiently explore issues with the client and let them find solutions that work best for them. This is another way of saying some of the above points, but I find it is hard to drive the point home so that highly effective and accomplished people will listen. Yes — clients hire you in part because of your expertise and will want to hear your ideas. However, they are much more likely to receive your ideas if you take the time to forget all that you know and understand what the client does and doesn't know. Smart people usually feel great, but often have ideas that are ahead of what the client is ready to hear or able to implement. Slow down, dumb down (as sales trainer David Sandler advised), and focus on being successful and getting results for the client over being the smartest.
6. Get the client to be accountable. Don't end a coaching session with general insights and a-ha moments. Challenge the client about what he or she will do between sessions. Create clear accountability and action steps. What will happen before you meet again?
I hope you also find value in these reminders. It doesn't take long to make them habits, although over time even the most successful coaches can use some reminders.
All of this is great news, because it frees us up to go much deeper into the top challenges that leaders face, and how we as coaches can provide an efficient, effective, high-impact approach to addressing them and improving performance. That's where the Center for Executive Coaching shines compared to other coach training programs — and we are fortunate that our members have the expertise and substance to make the transition and be successful in the market (whether as internal or external coaches).